Why Great CEOs Aren’t Always Great Leaders


Great CEOs are often people in a race to the future – they’re obsessed with defining the future because they can’t stomach the thought of reacting to a future created by their competitors. Somehow Steve Jobs was able to see the unseen, and marshal Apple’s resources to deliver the innovation that fulfilled his view of what lied ahead. In the process, Apple became the most valuable corporation on the face of the earth and Steve Jobs the greatest CEO of our time. But was he the greatest leader of our time? Apple shareholders would likely nod to this. Former subordinates, who suffered from his autocratic and abrasive style, might differ.

Theoretically, the principles and personal characteristics that constitute great leadership should mirror those of greats CEOs – but not always. Here are 3 reasons why:

    1. By definition, people who fail to deliver quantitative business results for the companies they lead are not great CEOs (of that company). That does not preclude an individual from becoming a great leader and a great CEO elsewhere. Reportedly, John Scully was the top of his class during his Pepsi years. Then he moved to Apple and failed miserably. Same leader, different result.
    2. Companies, markets, and the categories in which they compete can be exceedingly dissimilar. Fundamentally, the leadership style or the skillset required of a CEO in one environment may be the kiss of death in another. Is a “turnaround” artist right for a profitable, steady bureaucracy? Can a great “start-up” entrepreneurially-driven CEO guide a mature organization? Are shareholders looking for a builder or a banker?
    3. CEOs can exhibit some odd leadership characteristics and still get the job done. One has to wonder if Apple would have been as successful had Steve Jobs not been ruthless, impatient, emotional, stubborn, intense, and controlling.

On reason number 3, I’m the first to admit that if I could go back, I would have done a few things differently during my corner office era.  For starters, I would have injected more fun into a culture that was intensely competitive, but unnecessarily serious. Secondly, I treated everyone the same; at the time I justified my behavior as fair and equitable leadership. Admittedly, it was also “easy” leadership because I led with little regard to filtering the intensity of my personality. On reflection, I should have paid more attention to the unique personalities of my team and made some adaptations that would have allowed their business lives to be even more fulfilling.

In the final analysis, would these improvements in human resource strategy have made any difference to corporate performance? The answer to that question is an unequivocal, “no”. That said, these adaptations would not have hindered the result. The most important question a CEO must answer is still, “what should we do?” Once he or she has taken care of that, the next question is “how should we do it?” This is the question that affords the opportunity for a leader to provide satisfaction to his or her followers during the long journey to a purposeful destination.

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Image credit: konstantynov / 123RF Stock Photo

John Bell

John Bell is the author of Do Less Better. The Power of Strategic Sacrifice in a Complex World. A retired consumer packaged goods CEO and global strategy consultant to some of the world's most respected blue-chip organizations, his periodic musings on strategy, leadership, and branding appear in various journals including Fortune and Forbes. John has served as a director of several private, public, and not-for-profit organizations. He can be reached at his blog http://www.ceoafterlife.com/

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  • Thanks John, I tell organizations that leadership needs to be situational, i.e., that the CEO will face a variety of complex situations and that there will be times when there’s a need to move beyond the core leadership skill set.
    About the CEO recruiting process, I quote John Briggs of the Solutions Behavioural Health Group Milwaukee, ‘…you can’t ever replace or replicate the current situation. Choosing a person creates a new situation. Different kinds of people will create different situation / direction. So, should we choose a person, or a future situation based on the future we (and they) want?’

  • asaleader

    Great post, John, although I’m a little surprised by your final para. Adjusting more to other people’s styles and personalities would enable you to help them stretch themselves more which WOULD impact on overall team performance, surely. I’ve seen this in quite a few teams now and it can be v exciting. Anyway, thanks again and all best, Pete

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